One of the most entertaining and controversial of 2020’s hastily arranged esports events will return in March, as the NASCAR Pro Invitational comes back for a second season.
The NASCAR esports series made headlines for several reasons during last year’s motorsports vacuum. It replaced the real thing in probably the truest form of any of the events, with just about every real-life NASCAR Cup Series pro taking part, rather than invited celebrities and renowned sim racers.
That gave the Pro Invitational such a sense of legitimacy that it actually aired on live broadcast TV. Fox Sports actually showed the series as if it were the real thing, and the very first broadcast brought in nearly a million viewers. That broke the record for an esports racing event, and subsequent races pushed that bar even higher.
There were also some controversies though. During one live event Richard Petty Motorsports driver Bubba Wallace “rage-quit”, causing one of his major sponsors to cancel funding for his real-life car. Another driver, Kyle Larson, dropped a racist slur on live stream during an unofficial event, losing his sponsors and his drive as a result. He’ll be racing again in 2021 after sensitivity training and engaging in voluntary community outreach.
For the 2021 season, the NASCAR Pro Invitational Series will occupy a slightly different position. The NASCAR Cup Series itself continues unabated, so the pro drivers will race on weekday evenings. Each virtual race will take place on a Wednesday, at around 8pm EST (1300 UTC).
Again, TV stations will live broadcast the races, with Fox Sports on hand for the first five, and NBC Sports for the final five races in a ten-event season. At the moment NASCAR has only revealed the schedule for the first half of the season, which is as follows:
- Round 1 – March 24 – Bristol Dirt
- Round 2 – April 21 – Talladega
- Round 3 – May 5 – Darlington
- Round 4 – May 19 – Circuit of the Americas
- Round 5 – June 2 – TBA
Brad Zager, Fox Sports executive producer, commented:
“Fox Sports embraced the eNASCAR iRacing Invitational Series in the spring as a way to keep race fans entertained, but we quickly realized it was a product and collaboration that we would continue to explore. The product is best-in-class, it delivers NASCAR to an even broader audience and, let’s face it, it’s a heckuva lot of fun.”